An “Aspie’s” Take on Church

faith and autism

I grew up in church. I spent more time there than the pastor did. Both of my parents were involved in the ministry without actually being pastors. My mom held a unique position within Children’s Ministry. She did the Christmas plays, Vacation Bible School and the Nursery programs, but did not usually teach the actual Sunday morning Children’s Church. My dad built and ran the sound system.

From the age of five until the age of twelve, I was supposed to be in Children’s Church with the rest of the kids on Sunday mornings. I HATED IT. It was loud. They played games I didn’t understand. They read Bible stories I’d already heard or read for myself. I was either bored out of my mind or over stimulated by what was going on. I despised the songs that involved shouting. I would sit on my chair and hold my ears. Then I would get yelled at for not participating. This would make me cry because no one would let me explain. I would often run out screaming.

This posed a bit of a problem. Most kids who misbehaved were sent to sit with their parents. My parents were always in the sound booth. They didn’t mind me being there, but the church staff did. It was a catch-22. They didn’t want my mom sitting in the sound booth either, but she wouldn’t let them argue with her reasoning that “families should sit together in church.” At least up there, I was away from the smell. I was away from the loud noise. I could sit on the floor and draw.

When I turned twelve, I was too old for Children’s Church, but too young for the youth group. So, I dropped out of existance to a degree for a while. I would go to church with my parents and then go hide. I had hiding spots all over the church where I could disappear and no one could find me. This annoyed a lot of people, but I never hurt anything. I just wasn’t sitting in church.

When I turned 13, I was drafted into the youth group. My dad insisted that I go since my siblings and I had been taken out of school and “needed socialization.” Now, I had everyone involved in the youth group keeping tabs on my every movement at church and was unable to go hide anymore. This is what I experienced:

Walk in the door to the sanctuary and get hit with a virtual wall of perfume/cologne that made me down-right nauseaous. Then I get one person after another trying to hug me and asking me “what’s wrong?” I know it is impolite to say, “You all stink,” so I attempt to look like I’m smiling and say, “Nothing.”

So then the music starts… Music has an interesting effect on me. You’d have to watch me to understand. Thankfully, I did grow up in a church that had no qualms about outright dancing in church, but that’s not exactly what I did. I play “air drums” for a lack of a better way to put it… or the back of the seat in front of me would take quite a beating during the more upbeat songs… during the slower ones, I have a tendency to go into a trance-like state… I love music… it’s like a freakin’ drug… I don’t mind it being loud… I can sing along just as loud. I like to sing. The adults had no shouting songs, it was music… and it was good. My dad ran the sound and knew how to make it sound just right. BUT… heaven help me if someone went off key or if an instrument wasn’t tuned right. I would cringe as if I were in pain. Feedback, on the rare occasions it would happen would make me black out for a few seconds and it took a while to recover.

So, you’ve got me all hyped up now… and the songs end and I’m expected to sit still and listen. With every nerve in me on edge. I’ve got to be still. I last about two minutes before I’m squirming or picking at my face. Next thing I know, I’m bleeding. So, I’m disruptive because I have to get up and go to the bathroom to make it stop. If I don’t go back, I’m hunted down and hollered at to return. I wind up with blood on the sleeves of every coat and long sleeved shirt I own. In the summer, it would wind up on the collar of my shirt because I would pull the front of my t-shirt up to my face. It is embarrassing, but I still cannot control the impulse to pick at myself. It is difficult enough to control the impulse to pick at other people. Sunburn peeling, pimples, they are irritating. It takes active resistance to leave them alone. I have to look away and purposefully get something else in my head.

Or, I would bring a paper and pen and sit and draw, often getting me in trouble for not paying attention. I was told many times over, “If you can sit and watch Star Trek or watch a movie, you can sit through church.” My retort, “I don’t go to movies and Star Trek has commercials.” Mind you, this was said by people who did not see me at home. I never sat still to watch TV. I was always moving around or getting up.

But this is church we’re talking about… there are “spiritual” implications…

I grew up in a Pentecostal church. They expected that everyone should eventually speak in tongues.  They liked to lay hands on people. I can’t tell you how freaked out it made me to be surrounded by people babbling nonsense and insisting on touching me. A sensory overload induced panic attack is not the same thing as being possessed and does not require the casting out of demons. Shutting down and appearing to pass out because I can’t take it anymore is not being “slain in the Spirit.” Yet, both have happened to me on several occasions.

But, back then, no one had ever heard of Asperger’s. I was just a difficult and defiant kid who knew too much for her own good. I know the Bible inside out and backward. I have read it cover to cover multiple times in various translations. I knew it at 14 better than most pastors do. So, I asked way too many questions. I did not understand that it was a social faux pax to question church leadership. I did not understand that mimicking their idea of “polite” as an attempt to sound respectful came off as patronizing and condescending. I was ALWAYS in trouble with the leadership.

As a result, most of the kids were basically told to stay away from me, which most of them were more than happy to do. Outside of the youth group, I was rarely included. The only person who went out of his way to include me was Fred. He was the leader of the drama team and he was the only one who actually listened to me. He was the only person there that I could actually trust… and therefore the only person who could get away with any kind of physical contact with me… and it was assumed by many that I had romantic feelings toward him. Given the 12 year age difference, I thought that was one of the most ridiculous things ever thought of… but the more I denied it, the worse people got. Thankfully, Fred had enough sense in his head to not only stand up to them, but tell me, “We are friends. Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing will change that.”

The other problem that I had at church is more difficult to explain. I have the ability to sense the emotions of the people around me. I will post more in depth about this later, but let’s just say that being in a room full of people who are “seeking God” is torture. The emotions run the gammet from desire to skepticism to out right pain? I don’t have words for all of it… but it’s there… and I felt it… and it drove me nuts. I couldn’t talk about it because the few times I did try to explain it I was accused of messing with the occult because the discussion of anything resembling psychic abilities was strictly taboo. I was told that I watch too much Star Trek. (I was a big time trekkie.) Deanna Troi was my favorite character , but that was because she was like me, not the other way around. And, apparently, they considered Star Trek silly at best, evil at worst… I don’t know if this empathic type ability is an Autistic or Asperger’s trait or not, but it does seem to be common among other people I’ve met who have Asperger’s.

I can’t even begin to get into some of the ramifications involved with stimming… There were certain things that I did that caused some interesting sensations that were not at all sexual. I’d been doing these things in innocence and ignorance since I was a little kid, and now I’m learning grown up words for them and it’s being associated with with sex and it’s being called evil… and I was always feeling bad about me. I spent my teen years in anguish and guilt over it. I’ve since learned the difference and believe me, there is a HUGE difference… but knowing now didn’t help me then.

It hurt me very deeply that it was assumed that I was not “saved” or much of a believer because of these things. I thought for a long time that God hated me. I hated Him too, because I figured He made me this way and therefore had no business hating me for being the way I was… Then I learned that the church does not necessarily speak for God. That was one of the happiest days of my life when I realized that God and the church are not one and the same. When it finally dawned on me that God does love me, not in spite of the way I am, but because He made me the way I am… I was bouncing off the walls for weeks.

I didn’t go to church nearly as much after I turned 18. My parents eased up and did not insist so much that I go, especially since I was going to a near by Bible college. I still went to hang out with the one or two people I was friends with, but more often than not, I was either in the sound booth or out in the fellowship hall. When I was 23, my parents left the church. By then I had been married for three years to John, whom I met in college, and we had moved just far enough away to warrant finding a different church. My experience there was different, but this is getting really long. So, if you want more on my current involvement with church, you can read my xanga blog at www.xanga.com/keyststpf

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How does having Autism in your life effect your faith?

 

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0 thoughts on “An “Aspie’s” Take on Church

  • December 23, 2009 at 12:03 am
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    Oh, I sympathize with you greatly. Add to most of your experiences wanting so badly to help in the church, trying to do so in so many ways and only realizing that there was no place for me in every church I attended. 

    Reply
  • December 23, 2009 at 12:01 am
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    @mathematicalbagpiper@xanga – I’m an Aspie with a lot of faith, though not a lot of faith in most organized religion, and I’m a linguistic thinker. I’m no good at math. There are considerable others in my shoes. 

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  • June 10, 2009 at 10:46 pm
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    Thank you so much for sharing your life experience growing up in a Christian family and as a part of a neighborhood church!  Because of having Asperger’s syndrom, to a large extent, which was not recognized properly, you had a really difficult time as a child and young adult!  I certainly commend your parents for their total commitment to you as their dearly-loved daughter.

    How wonderful, too, that your mother won your confidence and loyalty!  What a privilege you have to have been born into that home.  Also it is great that you have learned to understand something of what you were born with.  mrcolorful (Tim) also has Asperger’s and really considers it a gift with which he was born!  That’s a healthy attitude in my opinion!

    I’m so glad that your faith in God is still alive!

    God’s peace!

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  • June 10, 2009 at 10:24 pm
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    @mrcolorful@xanga – I am so sorry to hear that; priests like that make my life very difficult, because I meet people who had experiences like that and they expect me to be the same. But any priests who says God hates you is a liar; if God hated you, you would not exist. God loves you, and loves each person. If he hated anyone, being that we are all sinners, he would hate everyone to some degree or another. If that were the case (thankfully it isn’t!) then we would all be in a very bad way!

    So if a priest or anyone ever tells you again that God hates you, be confident in calling them a liar.

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  • June 10, 2009 at 3:26 pm
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    wow. for as much as i did read i’m dislexic i’m amazed it’s AWESOME you have a relationship with GOD he has big plans for you. i love hearing other peoples struggles and speaking so honestly it makes my heart smile. i didn’t go to church for a long time i was raised catholic and knew right from wrong hated church was forced to go. wouldn’t change anything for the world God’s got a plan and i can feel it. i didn’t find my faith in  a church or from a pastor or my family. He found me. saved me a sinner i disowned him i lied in the worst ways until this past year from the age of 16 i’m 21 now. he took me at my worst and it making me out to be the most i’ve ever been. i’m going to be a youth conselor this year. praise jesus.

    <3

    god bless you.

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  • June 10, 2009 at 2:29 pm
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    Interesting to hear your stories; the American Christian mainstream culture has a lot of problems accepting people who are different as we should have.  As Christ did.  As Christians we should all know what kind of attitude to have toward our fellow human beings, and I don’t understand why so many Christians, when they get in groups, can be worse than non-Christians.  Maybe, because they are fortunate to have found their faith, they get too comfortable in thinking, “I’m right, you’re wrong, you need to be like me, that’s what makes me superior to you.”  People commit subtle sins they’re not aware of.  Pride, selfishness, shallowness, bad attitudes.  Often these add up to much more damage than the more obvious sins. 

    For everyone in this situation:  God accepts you the way you are and cares for you, and just because some messed-up people don’t want you to believe it, that doesn’t mean you can’t accept that love and grow as a person.  I don’t have any condition with a name, but a personality that was different/independent enough to put me on the outside of the clique.  I think this happens to a lot of people and they end up finding their personality type in more non-Christian circles, where some eventually lose their faith.  I actually left one Christian group in college when they admitted that their purpose was to look popular, among other things.  We should care about people for who they are, from our own hearts, instead of doing everything to look good to others.

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  • June 10, 2009 at 8:47 am
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    Wonderful post…thank you for articulating all of that.  I have two daughters with Asperger’s.  Interestingly enough, they do ok in services but my OCD daughter has more trouble.  Go figure.  Anyway, I think that any insight into AS/autism from those who can tell us what’s going on inside is to the good.  Thank you for adding to the good!

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  • June 10, 2009 at 6:44 am
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    Wowwww, I can so completely identify with so much of what you wrote, especially the sensory-overload-induced panic attacks and the shutdown response to being overwhelmed. My experience was at a Charismatic Baptist church instead of a Pentecostal one. I, too, knew more Bible and could explain theological concepts better than most of the adults in my church. Went to study theology after high school, too (despite “having demons” according to the leaders). But at school I quickly became disgusted with “organized religion” and dropped out. A very desperate and very lonely crisis of faith ensued for two more years before I finally came to terms with God, my own beliefs, and “organized religion,” and I have blogged extensively about “organized religion” and churches since then, in the hope of sparing others some of the awkward, painful loneliness I endured. If anyone’s interested… look for my entries tagged “church” and “organized religion” and “ecclesiastical tyranny.”

    I have come to think of my Asperger’s syndrome as a special gift, like Troi’s empathic sense! Mine is an uncanny ability to put ideas and feelings into words. I hear this all the time: “I’ve always felt that way but could never put it into words. You have done it for me!” Perhaps there’s some outlet for that gift somewhere…

    Thanks for sharing your fascinating story. I can so relate!

    -Robin

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  • June 9, 2009 at 11:36 pm
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    Boom- and you’ve got my readership. Just like that.

    I have ADD, so I can definitely sympathize with being socially alienated from other people- especially in the church. I too was also raised in a Pentecostal environment, so I can also understand everyone expecting you to become “baptized in the spirit”. I can remember with I was filled with the holy spirit, and NOTHING ever happened. I spent months wondering what was wrong with me. Since then, I’ve actually become quite grateful that nothing ever happened to, though. Over time, I’ve become more and more uncomfortable with inviting any kind of spirit into oneself.

    I can also, oddly enough, identify (in my own way) with your ability to sense other people’s emotions. I have, on many different occasions, been able to sense things about other people or else have a certainly knowledge about someone that I should not have had. I was able to point out a practicing warlock to my parent when I was a child. I once told my mother, to her surprise (since she knew it & never told me) that an individual in our family was homosexual. And these are only two examples.

    I must say that your skill at writing is rather a pleasant surprise- and oh, the content! You write so very well, that I wonder if you’re in an English major or something.

    @moss_icon@xanga – I too have serious problems with organized Christianity. I’ve actually written a blog recently you might find interesting called: A History of anti-semitism in the church.  I basically tried to illustrate where Christianity got off track and the reasons why Christians practice some of the things they do.

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  • June 9, 2009 at 10:07 pm
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    Really interesting post! I was especially interested in this;

    “I have the ability to sense the emotions of the people around me.”

    I don`t have Aspergers or Autism or anything similar but I am “hyper-empathic.” I can generally “feel” the emotional vibes in the air quite accutely, as it were, and they affect my own. It`s always interesting to hear of others with similar “talents,” if that`s what you could call it.

    You`re story reminds me of one of the myriad reasons why I want nothing to do with organised religion, especially Christianity. Anything and everything that does not fit inside they`re narrow-minded sphere of experience is condemned. Instead of trying to learn and understand it is just shunned. These people even go as far as to effectively damn us for being different… which is the cruelest, most unkind thing a person who actually believes in heaven and hell can do. As some previous commenters have already said this kind of Christian (and, perversely, they do seem the rule rather than the exception) don`t want to know, empathise or understand anything beyond their own world. They just want to hammer the proverbial nail into place.

    This kind of blind ignorance is responsible for so many of the world`s ills. Many people find themselves engaging in this behaviour from time to time but the worst part about this kind of religious person is they actually believe they are right to do so. “I don`t undertand your behaviour, thus I fear it, thus you must be bad and are going to hell.” Imagine how much better the world would be if people instead said “hmmm… maybe if I try to understand and empathise with this person instead of condemning them it will enrich my own life and understanding of the world and better equip me to deal with the unexpected in the future!” But hey, where`s the controlling factor in that and control is essentially what organised religion is about.

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  • June 9, 2009 at 10:01 pm
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    Part of the reason why I stopped going to church was because of the way everybody treated my brother.  

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  • June 9, 2009 at 8:17 pm
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    I have AS, but the ironic thing is I’m the only person in my family who actually goes to Mass.  My faith in God is strong as he is all powerful and has given us all a story to tell, and it’s through him that my life is being directed.

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  • June 9, 2009 at 11:30 am
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    My Aspie brother has always had a hard time at church for many of the same reasons. Typically he would just disappear and you would find him pacing around one of the Sunday School rooms or something. It was slightly maddening on my part because he would usually lie in order to leave service and then just wouldn’t come back. The lies were what I hated the most. But the friends issue, plus the stimming, and then the complete lack of empathy did not help him much. 

    As for the emotions part. I wish my brother had that. He does not show nor notice emotion. If you are having a bad day or are annoyed by him, he does not pick it up and does not empathize. Even if you are crying he will just look at you and then move on. No hugs or sorrys. My parents currently attend a small church with only a handful of people and it is rather informal. This seems to work all right, but what happens is he is still in his own little world somewhere and not actually engaging with the other people or in worship. I hope that one day he will find a church that he will enjoy going to and will actually engage with the church.
    Oh, and I too am so glad that God and the Church are not the same thing. 

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  • June 9, 2009 at 2:04 am
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    I almost understand what you’re describing. I grew up in a Pentecostal church myself, and was overwhelmed by all the screaming and yelling and crying and so on, I cannot possibly imagine the extent that it effected you. It is ridiculous how churches are unwilling to listen and understand individuals’ feelings.  And the intense dislike of touch, that seems like another thing churchgoers look down upon for some reason (I later realized it was actually causing a pain response in my skin, but…) it’s just frustrated that Christians sometimes don’t want to look at another perspective other than their own. Ultimately, I don’t think that was the determining factor in my faith, but church definitely had an impact. 

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  • June 8, 2009 at 9:46 am
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    I was a PK who left the church for about 15 years. MY circumstances were different dad died at 10 and but then I did have some involvement with some of the things you described in my teens b4 I said enough.

    I believe your moms view was correct. The whole childrens church , et.al is like getting rid of the kids while the adults worship in peace while the kids are at the babysitters. It almost makes a statement in itself.

    Sometimes a period away for the ritual or routine is neeeded to break cultural christianity. Right now my wife who was always in church her whole life has hit a major snag. She hasnt attended in six months. And you know, there is no crisis in the house, I dont make mention about it, She is welcome to come or not. There wasn’t even a blow up at church. It just happened.

    Why doesn’t it bother me? Because I felt like she was going to the show for a few years now. Like it was so separate from who she was, but it was something she knew she had to do. She could out quiz most people, knows the Word, but for some reason there has been a speed bump. I know all about forsaking the assembly, about the family worshipping together, but this has almost been wierd. Both myself and my daughter almost feel this is good because she had gotten to the point of pretending to be someone she was not at church, and that was creating a big problem at home with my daughter. And she felt caught up in it, like she was becoming what she didn’t like.  The Lord tells us to work out our own salvation and it causes us at times to each go through some unique things. 

    BTW, this post was very visual for me. I experienced this all with you, very well written.

    John

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  • June 8, 2009 at 9:30 am
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    The thing about me and faith is that I do tend to look at it quite concretely. I have studied the Bible as if it was a computer program in Basic… If a@= “insert variable here” then “insert command here.” The thing is, that the premise has to be right… in other words, it does not work at all unless I believe it is completely true. Which at times has proven slightly problematic… until I realized that the Bible is a collection of people’s beliefs about and interactions with God. Context is everything: who wrote it? who is the intended original audience? what was going on in the world when it was written? when is the author quoting God’s words to him? when is the author giving his own opinions about God? There are lots of questions to ask. I’ve found that many of the contradictory things contained within the Bible are merely differences of opinion or perspectives between authors that do not effect the nature of God at all.

    In spite of the church, I have not lost my faith. I’ve torn it to pieces a few times, but I’ve never fully given up on it. It does not seem logical to do so given the evidence I have been presented. I would credit a good deal of that to my mom. She let me question. She let me discuss things with her. She got into enough trouble of her own with the church people, so we had a lot of common ground for discussion. She fought for me to be able to sit in the sound booth with her and dad. Half the time all three of us kids would be up there. I learned how to run the sound system and the video cameras. Later, I found the print room on one of my explorations and my friend Matt and I would help his dad print the bulletin inserts. I learned how to run an old school printing press. So, for all the “bad” stuff I experienced at church, I did have some good times there. I was just always in trouble for it…LOL 

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  • June 8, 2009 at 8:50 am
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    We have our challenges with going to Church also.  Faith is important to us.  Having a young child with Autism, and staff at church not trained – or limited experience or facilities – is a big challenge.

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  • June 7, 2009 at 9:23 pm
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    I fully understand that belief that God hates you.  I was raised in a Catholic Church and was actually told on occasions by Priests that God hates me.  Churches tend to be very structured places that will not allow any alterations of any kind to their set-ups designed to help normal people thrive and unfortunately, people with Asperger’s tend to really struggle in environments like that.

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  • June 7, 2009 at 6:40 pm
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    I can’t blame all of this on having AS, but I have NO FAITH at all. I’m atheist

    I’ve actually noticed though, that this is a common thing when it comes to AS…that they are more likely to lack religious faith than their non-AS counterparts. I attribute this to the fact that AS people think more concretely (hence excel in such things as math and science…which even some math isn’t very concrete and I would know having a degree in it) and have difficulty thinking abstractly (which religious faith is a very abstract thing).

    Reply

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